Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to today’s Boundless Immigration Live. My name is Maggie Riley. I am the immigration law and policy analyst here at Boundless Immigration, and I’m coming here today to talk a little bit about preparing for USCIS interviews, especially now during this latest Omicron surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve received a lot of questions from people about how they can get ready for the interview, what sort of documents might be needed, what kind of rules they need to know about before they arrive, etc. So, I wanted to pop on here today and take a little bit of time just to talk about some of the changes that USCIS has announced, the guidelines, and what you can expect when you go to a USCIS interview.
So, before we really wanted to jump in, I just want to tell you a little bit about me and sort of set a ground-rule, as it were.
I am an immigration attorney. I’ve been an immigration attorney for several years now, but I don’t represent private clients. I just work for Boundless, and so, what that means is that anything I’m saying here today is going to be general information. I’m not giving anyone specific legal advice. I can’t answer questions about specific situations. I’m just here to talk about my experiences working in the immigration system, the trends that we’ve seen here at Boundless and share information about what you can expect at the USCIS interviews and what the rules are.
If you do have any questions about your immigration status or path to citizenship, I recommend that you talk with an immigration attorney. You can find email@example.com. But just so that you all are all aware there, I’m not giving any direct legal advice today, just sharing general information from USCIS.
So, all that out of the way, let’s go ahead and jump in.
Are interviews even happening? Is USCIS scheduling interviews? Are they still going forward?
And the short answer is yes, USCIS is still scheduling interviews.
And the interviews that have already been scheduled in general are still meant to go forward. USCIS in general is going to send out that interview notice. And once you receive it, you better show up at that interview. Failure to show up at an interview will usually result in the application being denied. So, it’s very important that if they send an interview notice and they did not send a cancellation or reschedule notice to still attend that interview.
USCIS recently announced that they are also going to be potentially rescheduling some interviews due to the Omicron surge. So, for some of you who have been going through the consular process overseas, you already know that consulates tend to operate based on whatever the local conditions are. In some parts of the world, COVID is a much bigger risk than it is in other places, and so. for the past two years or so, most of the consulates have been functioning under some variety of coded restrictions if they haven’t closed entirely.
The immigration courts, earlier this week, issued basically a pause on all standing orders. They’re pausing a lot of hearings in immigration courts as well. Because of this most recent Omicron wave, however, USCIS is still moving forward with interviews. But like the consulates, it’s going to depend on where you live and how serious the COVID case numbers and risk of exposure is there. This, of course, also leads to staffing shortages, which a lot of you have probably read about on the news.
USCIS officers get sick as well, and that can also lead to short staffing. It can lead to the need for USCIS to reschedule interviews because they don’t have enough officers available on a given day.
USCIS updated their website on Tuesday of this week, so that would be January 12. They updated their website to say that in some areas they may need to reschedule interviews due to the Omicron surge.
If they reschedule an interview, they said that they will mail a written notice to the applicant, the petitioner, or the sponsor. They will mail that notice. If you don’t receive a mailed notice from USCIS—if they haven’t officially rescheduled—you should assume that that interview is still going forward.
They are still doing interviews. Check your local guidance. USCIS posts field office closures on its website, so you can check in with them and make sure that on the day of or before your appointment the office is going to be open or not.
What are the rules when I get to USCIS? What are the COVID guidelines? What are they doing to keep us all safe?
So, the first thing that you’re going to need to know is that USCIS offices are federal buildings. Because this is a federal space, everyone inside is required to wear a mask. This goes for federal employees. It goes for contractors that are working for the federal government in the USCIS offices, and it also goes for visitors.
If you were the applicant, if you were the spouse of an applicant, if you are the translator or the attorney, you are going to have to wear a mask. Bring one from home. An N95 is generally the recommended mask.
USCIS does say on their website that if you bring a face covering that they don’t think is sufficient or good enough, they will offer you another mask. It’s probably best to just save the trouble and bring a proper mask from home.
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, if you have been exposed to somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, USCIS most likely going to ask you to reschedule your interview.
Now, this is because even though the CDC released guidance around the five-day end of quarantine for individuals who are exposed, be it vaccinated or not, USCIS has its own guidance, and its guidance is a 14-day time limit. The USCIS guidance supersedes any local guidance, so, if you live in a state that has no mask mandates, you still have to wear a mask.
At USCIS, their guidance will be controlling even if you live somewhere that does not have requirements regarding isolation. USCIS is holding this 14-day rule. It is set on their website, and anecdotally, there have been reports of people who were asymptomatic, tested positive, and wore a mask, but were asked to reschedule their appointment due to the recent code exposure.
In those situations, USCIS handles the reschedule and so generally a new notice would be mailed as well as how it was done the first time. So, keep in mind.
If you’ve been exposed, if you’ve tested positive, you are going to need to request a reschedule if you have an interview scheduled in the next 14 days.
Another rule at USCIS is in regards to if you have traveled internationally, domestically, or on a cruise ship within ten days before your interview.
For a lot of folks, they think of international travel as being what is going to trigger that concern about quarantine. USCIS thinks that traveling domestically or internationally is going to create enough of a risk that they are going to ask you to quarantine for ten days prior to your interview. If an interview has already been scheduled for you, you’re going to have to think carefully about whether you think it’s worth traveling versus rescheduling your interview.
Keep in mind that it is very serious to be untruthful or to lie to an immigration officer, and that can have very serious and long-term consequences for your case. So, whenever you’re making decisions about what you’re going to do, just keep in mind that honesty really is the best policy.
As far as your COVID exposures, like I said, you do not need to show that you’ve been vaccinated to attend an interview, but you do need to know that you cannot attend if you have tested positive or are currently symptomatic for COVID-19.
Fully vaccinated still means two doses of a two-dose regimen. So that would be like the Moderna vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after the one dose regimen such as the Johnson and Johnson. So, it does include that two-week period after you get the jab.
What should you consider bringing with you to the USCIS interview?
They do recommend that you bring your own blue and black ink pens. I like to toss that in there. It’s an odd one that they added at the beginning of the pandemic, but in general, I think it’s just never a bad idea. It saves, I suppose, cross-contamination.
What are some ways you can prove your relationship if you haven’t been able to travel?
A lot of people have really limited their social gatherings. They aren’t going to movies or baseball games or holiday parties or whatever the various social events that they usually would be going out to with their family members or partners.
This is often really good evidence for folks who are applying to show that their relationship is ongoing and continuous and what immigration authorities called a “bona fide relationship.” That means a relationship that is a real, genuine relationship and not for the purposes of getting a green card or some other immigration benefit.
So, often people like to submit evidence of travel they’ve taken together, photos of them out and about, photos with each other’s families, etc. For many people during the pandemic, that hasn’t been as possible as before. Like anything else, when proving your relationship, your individual situation, those facts matter. What you’re doing when you are submitting an application to USCIS or attending your interview is telling the story of your relationship in a way that is easy to understand.
For immigration, it shows your genuine relationship and that you meet all the requirements to receive the green card or visa that you’re requesting.
We’ve all had to get kind of creative during the COVID-19 pandemic with how we deal with various situations in our life and this is no different. If you haven’t been traveling together, other options [for evidence] can include WhatsApp FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Google, meet calls with each other’s families or with each other.
I know many people had a family member attend Thanksgiving or New Year’s celebrations over Zoom because they weren’t able to travel at the time, and so, a screenshot of your family together electronically can do just as much as that physical photo could have done.
It’s really about showing the interconnection and the intermingling of your lives and your families. And so, things just are what they are right now. And so, we can get creative in other ways. Perhaps if you haven’t been going out doing things in public, but maybe you’ve taken an online cooking course together.
I had a few friends who did that as a couple, and so they were able to submit the itinerary, and then they took some home photos and screenshots of them cooking together.
So even though you’re not able to do things physically or to travel like you have been in the past, a lot of us have found ways to sort of move our lives online so that we’re not missing out on everything.
I’d recommend thinking about how have you adapted in your life to the pandemic, and then how can you turn around and show that to the USCIS officers? So, think about, like I said, online courses. Are you doing movie nights with friends and family over Amazon Prime? Are you having watch parties, outdoor picnics?
But yeah, think really carefully about how you’ve shifted into a sort of digital space without sounding too futuristic, and then think about how you can show that to the USCIS officers.
Do I need to be vaccinated in order to enter the United States?
So, if you have been applying from outside the United States for either a K-1 visa for your partner or a green card for your spouse, your partner, who is an immigrant, will need to be vaccinated to enter the United States. There are some medical exemptions for this that are laid out in the USCIS policy manual, but by and large, everybody who is immigrating into the United States will need to show that they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.
For United States citizen sponsors, it’s a little bit different.
US citizens and US green cardholders do not have to be vaccinated to enter the United States, but if they are not vaccinated, they will have to show that they have received a negative COVID test within the past 24 to 72 hours. For a lot of people, this can be really difficult to pull off logistically. Just the timing, especially with delays in getting testing and then testing results, can mean that you might be cutting it pretty close on getting those test results before your time comes to fly.
In general, that’s another thing to keep in mind when you’re making decisions about how you want to handle the medical portions when traveling. For somebody who is going to be flying into the United States either as an immigrant who has received a green card or on a K1, you are going to need to show that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or that you have a medical exemption.
Do I need to be vaccinated in order to enter a USCIS field office?
You do not need to show that you’ve been vaccinated to enter a USCIS field office for an interview.
But again, if you have tested positive or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive within 14 days, or you’ve traveled internationally or domestically within ten days, they are going to ask you to reschedule your interview.
I had mentioned you are going to need to show that you’re vaccinated to enter the United States at this time. The CDC has not updated its guidance as to which vaccines are accepted, so it has not changed since I spoke with you all a couple of weeks ago. So, the United States is still accepting proof that you’ve been vaccinated with either the Pfizer by Intech, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson AstraZeneca Covaxin, CovaShield, etc.
Do both spouses need to be vaccinated to attend the interview?
Both spouses do not need to be vaccinated at the interview, just to travel into the United States on the visa. If you’re coming from outside the United States, you’re going to have to show vaccination if you’re not a US citizen. But the rules are different for the US citizens versus folks who are coming into the country as travelers or as immigrants.
Can the US citizen live abroad while waiting for their partner to get their green card?
So, I will start by saying that I am a US Immigration attorney, so my knowledge base is particular to US immigration. But what I can say here is that in general, if a US citizen is living overseas with a spouse, a partner, or another family member, that generally will not have a negative impact on a green card application for that family member when they come to the United States. However, it will impact the application in that the US citizen, when they return to the United States, has to show that they are domiciled in the United States.
This can be a little bit complicated to explain sometimes, but domicile has a very particular meaning in the legal immigration world, sort of separate from just plain residents.
So, for example, one can reside in one place and have domicile in another. If a US citizen is living overseas with a spouse, and they intend to immigrate to the United States later, they will, of course, have to comply with whatever the immigration laws are in the country that they’re living in. But when the US citizen is ready to return to the United States with their spouse, they’re going to have to show the US government that they are domiciled here.
Usually, that’s done by showing that US citizen has maintained voter registration in the United States. Essentially, it shows that you have ties to the United States. So, once again, that can be shown by voter registration, bank accounts opened in the United States, property owned in the United States, etc. It could also be land or a home. It could be property kept in storage if somebody left and intended to return.
It’s something that essentially shows that you have a continuing presence in the United States in some form. So, in that way, yes, the US citizen living overseas with the spouse can impact the application, but it doesn’t necessarily harm the application in any way. It just adds this extra step for the US citizen to show later on in the process.
Do both spouses need to be vaccinated against COVID at the interview?
One thing to clarify here is that overseas, when individuals interview at a consulate or the embassy for an immigrant visa or for a K1 visa or another visa of that sort, only the applicant is in the room with the consular officer.
In a situation like that, even if both should be vaccinated, per local regulations, only the beneficiary is going to be the one in the room with the officer actually taking the interview. In the United States, in the past, both parties would attend the interview together.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has tightened its entry guidelines into their field offices to help limit the risk of exposure and spread. Visitors are actually limited to just the applicant and one attorney or representative. If you have a lawyer who’s going with you, or if you have someone who is helping you by providing disability assistance, or even an interpreter, they are generally going to be asked to appear telephonically, which means to call in rather than to come into the room in person.
In that case, in the United States, we don’t have any requirements as far as vaccination for US citizens. There’s no mandate nationally that people do be vaccinated. And so, that is also not a requirement to enter the USCIS field offices.
So, when I’m talking about this vaccination requirement for immigrants, it’s specifically for people who are entering the country to get their green card.
Can I travel while waiting for my visa?
In general, a lot of immigration attorneys are very hesitant to give advice to anybody that they should travel during this time. There are a couple of reasons for that.
Advanced parole does allow an individual to leave the country while their process is pending and then to reenter. What you need to know, though, is that advanced parole doesn’t guarantee that you are going to be allowed back into the country.
The Customs and Border Protection officers at the airport or at the land border can still deny entry, regardless of whether you have an approved advance parole document. So that is always something to keep in mind. It’s not necessarily the number one risk, but during a global pandemic, when border closures and travel bans have been enacted and rolled back and enacted and rolled back, in general, you’re going to want to think really carefully about the safety of your immigration case of traveling.
You don’t want to leave the country for a quick vacation and then get stuck outside the country for a year, possibly missing your interview. So that is something really important that you’re going to want to keep in mind.
But as far as whether it impacts the processing for a green card, if you have advanced parole, in general, you’re okay to leave the country and come back. But if you have specific questions, you should always talk to an immigration attorney first about your particular case because there could be other issues lurking that you might have thought of, but a CBP officer might want to ask you about. It’s always something to keep in mind.
My rule of thumb during the pandemic has been “if you don’t need to travel, don’t travel, especially for the safety of your legal case.” Wait it out if you can. Obviously, that’s not always possible, but if possible, it’s generally safest, in my personal opinion, just to wait it out.
Time estimates for the pandemic?
That’s a big question. It’s really all over the place right now.
Unfortunately, we did see a big climb in the K1 backlog at USCIS. So that’s the I-129F form that USCIS processes before they send the case to the Department of State for an interview. I think that they jumped over 40% of the number of cases pending last year. Any time you’re seeing an increase in backlogs like that, you’re going to see sort of a knock-on effect in interviews also taking longer.
Unfortunately, the double whammy for folks doing consular processing like K1 is that the consulates have been hit really hard by the pandemic. I think I mentioned earlier in this talk that some of them are still sort of barely open or functioning under various coded restrictions, and because of that, the backlogs for interviews have really exploded.
I think there are about one and a half million family-based immigration cases in the backlog in the US. It really is highly variable. If you’re applying for a green card, it’s going to depend on where you live. New York City, you’re looking at two to three years to get a green card. Smaller communities.
If you live somewhere smaller, it’ll be faster. I think it was Columbus, Ohio, a couple of years ago was the fastest place to naturalize in the country by a full year. And so, it’s really going to depend on local conditions and local backlogs. I know that’s a frustrating answer. It’s the classic lawyer answer. It depends.
But there is a tool on the USCIS website. You can Google “USCIS processing times” and that should give you a general time frame for the particular type of form that you are doing. But in general, for green cards, you’re probably looking at one to two years, depending on where you live.
Can a beneficiary travel domestically if they’re already in the US before immigration schedules an interview?
Yes. There are no rules preventing domestic travel.
Again, it’s always going to depend on your particular situation and the level of risk you’re comfortable taking. So, for example, someone who is undocumented, who lives maybe near the Southern border or the Canadian border, might want to avoid Greyhound trips in that area because there tend to be stops.
But in general, there’s no real problem with traveling domestically. The one thing you’re going to need to remember is if the interview is scheduled, USCIS is going to want to reschedule your interview if you traveled domestically within ten days. So, if you’ve just filed and you’ve probably got six months, a year, or a year and a half before an interview, it’s more likely going to be safer for you to go on a trip than if you’re waiting for your interview and it’s already been scheduled. It’s probably better to sit it out and wait and celebrate afterward.
Is it best to hire a lawyer come to with the applicant to the interview?
That’s a matter of personal opinion. I am an immigration attorney, and in general, I find that, yes, that’s what I think. I might have a bit of bias from my background and training. In general, for many people, a marriage-based green card interview is straightforward, especially for folks who don’t have questions about prior immigration violations, visa violations, or who don’t have questions about prior criminal history. These are frequently referred to as “clean-cut cases,” and often, an immigration lawyer is not really needed.
And many people do attend their interviews successfully without an attorney present. However, there is a little bit of a difference, I think probably between how an interview might unfold, between an applicant, an attorney, and a USCIS officer versus just the officer and the applicant. I don’t say that to be frightening. It’s just something that you do hear stories about. Sometimes you hear horror stories and you think, gosh, if there’d been a lawyer there, they could have stopped that.
But, in general, I do want to say that for most people, you don’t need an attorney. But if it’s going to give you peace of mind, there’s nothing preventing you from doing it either. There are immigration attorneys who will agree to attend just for an interview as long as they can review the file ahead of time. That’s always going to depend on the individual attorney. I can’t speak for the whole profession, obviously.
But if you can afford it and you think that it will be beneficial to you, it’s certainly something that I think most attorneys at least, would definitely recommend. And if you have a complicated case or you have questions about whether you might end up triggering some kind of bar or having other issues down the road, I always highly advise that you speak with an immigration attorney just to make sure that you protect your options in the future.
Does the beneficiary need to be vaccinated if applying from inside the US?
So, this is an interesting one, because in general, there’s no requirement that if you’re in the United States, that you must get vaccinated. The government recently tried to put in place a workplace vaccine mandate. The Supreme Court ruled that they couldn’t.
And so, in general, the level of vaccination in the country is a function of people choosing to get vaccinated rather than being required to get vaccinated. The difference here is that if you are applying for a green card from inside the United States, by the time of your interview, you will need to submit a Form I-693 medical exam and the medical exam. One of the new requirements of the medical exam is the COVID-19 vaccination.
So earlier in the pandemic, obviously, before the vaccines were created, it wasn’t a requirement. And then there was sort of a window of time where the vaccines were out in the world, but the requirements in the medical exam didn’t change.
So, if you’re in the United States at the time you submit your application, technically speaking, you may not need to have already been vaccinated fully, but by the time you are going to have to complete that medical exam, by the time you attend your interview, that medical exam is going to need to show vaccination or that you have an approved exemption. That’s something that would be handled by the doctor when you get your medical exam done.
I want to thank everybody for joining. I hope that this has been informative. I know that there is a lot of changing information out there every day, not just around the pandemic, but around requirements with the government and immigration. I hope that we’re able to answer your questions and get some of that information to you in a clear manner.
If you think of any more questions, please get in touch with us through our social media channels. You can get in touch with us here on Instagram. We’re also live on Twitter and Facebook, so feel free to send us messages and we can make sure that we address your questions in our next live Q&A. Thank you so much, everybody. I hope you all have a fabulous day and stay safe out there. Bye.